Sunday, May 8, 2022

Play Styles and Game Design - D&D and Violence

This whole “D&D is about violence” discussion has been interesting to me, I see this as a play style issue, not a game design issue, but the majority of the “takes” I have seen treat it as a game design issue. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding. 

Note that this is not a comparative argument, I happily concede that there are games that have fewer rules for combat, and are designed to have less combat in them than D&D. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether or not D&D, as designed, is “about” violence, e.g. if the game, run as written, will lead players and referees towards an end where violence and combat make up the majority of the game play experience. It certainly seems that way if you use social media as your bellwether, but I disagree with this assessment.

I think people vastly underestimate the impact of play style choices, both in scope and game mechanically. Over the years I have seen a lot of play style variations and house rules used at the table. I will go over a selection of the more common of them here. I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive, nor that it applies to every group. Indeed, there are groups that run the game as close to the RAW as humanly possible, but I would maintain that these are very common choices made by many tables.

Many play style choices are related to HP. Full HP at 1st level, or “average” HP at every level, or full hp at each level, or whatever, but HP inflation is a common choice. This, of course, leads to the inflation of monster HP to keep things “fair”. If you are sceptical, ask yourself this question, if you had a fighter PC that rolled consistently badly, e.g. rolled 1hp each level repeatedly, would you change the results? If you rolled low HP for an important monster, would you change them? 

Then there is starting PCs off above 1st level, because that low level grind isn’t “fun”. Tables that start with more gold than recommended, so armor is easily purchased, as well as henchmen. This of course makes the party more formidable in combat. Then there is treasure, many refs ensure that there is treasure with every monster encounter, who wants to fight a monster and get nothing in return? Tweaking XP to ensure progress, who wants to fight things and not level up?

Morale rules are often ignored, as are loyalty rules, too fiddly, so monsters always fight to the death and henchmen are always loyal. I’ve seen alignment watered down to the point it was toothless, who wants restrictions on what your PC can do?

Many hand-wave the “boring bits” of the game, e.g. travel to and from dungeons, and focus on the dungeons themselves. On the topic of dungeons, they are often static affairs, if the party leaves and returns things are more or less the same.

Healing magic? Yes please! Ample potions of healing easily purchased, clerics healing anyone in the party, even if they worship opposed gods of differing alignments. Many tables don’t roll for healing either, because getting a “1” on your healing roll is a drag. Many ignore those pesky “downtime after healing” rules to keep the game going, who wants to wait around for one party member to recover? Many make raising the dead much easier to do, those PCs were beloved, why not make bringing them back easier?

Ignoring the consequences of PC actions, if they do bad things, well, that’s no big deal, it’s just a game! Ignoring class based alignment conflicts within the party is also common, LG paladin’s running with neutral/evil thieves, barbarians running with magic-users, elves happily adventuring with half-orcs, etc. 

Hand waving the time and gold requirements for leveling up, pesky stuff that, and streamlining the process significantly; faster, easier progress is the idea. Tweaking the class differential XP rules is also common, as that doesn’t seem “fair”. 

Encumbrance, and the impact of encumbrance on movement rates, modifiers, etc, being ignored or hand waved. PCs tend to have lots of weapons, lots of equipment, and haul out tons of gold (increasing XP and levels!) Who wants all that bookkeeping anyway? Ignoring encumbrance is remarkably common.

Spell casting is another area where there is significant mucking about. Spell components are hand-waved or just ignored completely. Rules for the efficacy of druid’s mistletoe and the use of cleric’s holy symbols are also given short shrift at many tables. Too fiddly. Spells are given out based on referee or player preferences, sometimes so the PCs would have “what they need” on an adventure. I’ve watched players scream that the game is “unfair” if their first level magic-user can’t have Sleep, and watched DM’s fold and let them have it. Spells are often easily purchased, as well as magic items; magic shops anyone?

Rules for interrupting spells in combat are often dropped or softened, who likes it, when you don’t have that many spells to start with, and then those you do have are interrupted? That’s no fun. So the adoption of spell slot systems, or mana points, or whatever, to “hack” the Vancian casting system. 

Stat inflation is also very common, and when your stats are inflated of course you are incentivised to use those stats to dominate your foes in combat rather than parley with them, avoid them or subdue them. For the spell casting classes, if stats aren’t inflated, many refs just drop the % odds of clerical spells failing based on low wisdom, and the % chance “to know” spells based on intelligence for magic-users, who wants to have a spell wiffle or be unable to learn a cool new spell for memorization?  

“Adjusting” the monsters and challenges to fit the party is also remarkably common. Ensuring that the players will be able to survive the encounter, often by adjusting numbers of opponents or HP on the fly, and changing the monsters/traps, etc. in published scenarios to make them “more appropriate” to the level of the party. Even though older D&D modules had level spreads and number of PCs specified, the spread was often quite wide, and you could easily get in over your head… unless the DM adjusted things to compensate. 

Save or die poisons are often blunted, as is level drain, both were intensely unpopular with players (Dragon letter columns attest to this). Then there are “player facing” rules that for some reason don’t apply to the monsters that fight the PCs, things like crit tables imported into the game. 

There are a lot of house rules like these I’ve seen over the years, and I’m sure there are plenty more than I haven’t seen, all “reasonable” and directed towards increasing “fun”. And of course different tables used variations on these, it is likely that no one table did all of these, but most tables I have sat at or heard about did some.

And so far we haven’t even touched on the big one. Fudging. Changing dice to avoid TPKs and character deaths, reducing monster HP to allow victories, or doing the opposite to ensure PC deaths and TPKs by “take no prisoner bastard DMs”.  Although there is a very vocal set of gamers who decry fudging dice, there are many who freely admit to altering dice rolls in combat to make it more “exciting”. When they do this, they are distorting the impact of violence in the game.

And of course this just feeds into the narrative that D&D is “about violence”, if you know your DM will ensure that you don’t die when you enter into conflict, that they will ensure that your party has the spells and abilities/items needed to succeed, then one major disincentives for violence disappears. 

Time for the Hot Takes

Hot Take 1: D&D is “about violence” because people have house ruled away the components of the game that make pursuit of violence risky. If you use the rules as written, parties that seek violent solutions to every problem will not survive. I mean this in the strongest way possible. My first DM was a RAW fanatic, we played our first summer of D&D when I was 14, and we played daily for two full months. I was a fan of magic-users and illusionists, and I lost about 2 per week for most of the summer. The highest level I managed to get to was 3rd. At the time I thought he was just being a jerk, but in retrospect he was just running the game as written. When I rolled 1 hp at 1st level, and this happened at least 25% of the time, ANY SUCCESSFUL HIT WOULD KILL ME. Many DMs would consider this to be absurd, and either house rule HP or start above 1st level. And so it goes.

Add the dropping of alignment and the tendency to want to have “morally grey” villains and D&D becomes a game not just about violence, but about amoral, pointless violence, as the consequences of violence have been blunted as well as the justifications for it. Players who have the safeties removed from the game become drunk with power, they see repeatedly that they can use violence and survive, so they become focused on fighting new and more interesting opponents. Why not, there is nothing to stop you.

Hot Take 2: D&D is about violence because THAT’S WHAT PEOPLE WANT IT TO BE ABOUT. The whole purpose of these sorts of house rules and play style choices is that they enable violence in the game because that’s what the people playing it want.

So when people breathlessly claim that D&D is “about violence”, what they are really identifying is that many of the people who play the game WANT IT to be about violence, and so do they, so they make it that way. It is not inherent in the game design.

One great example of this is that I have seen many people claim that you couldn’t play a “pacifist” in D&D as the game is designed for killing. They likely haven’t tried, they simply assume it is so due to the way the game is often played

However, there are existing BTB mechanics in the game for this sort of thing. There are rules for subdual (e.g. knocking out rather than slaying your opponent - pg 67 DMG), so RAW D&D allows you to use the pommel or flat of your sword to attack someone so you don’t kill them. This isn’t a house rule, or an addendum, it’s RAW.  

There are also rules for unarmed combat (pg 72 DMG), every creature you can slay with a sword you can also pummel, grapple or overbear then tie up. Of course, many groups don’t use the unarmed combat rules as they are “too fiddly”, but they exist in the RAW and allow non-lethal combat as desired. 

There are parley rules in D&D as well, and they are quite robust. ANY opposing force that can understand you MUST dice for reaction if you choose to parley with them. This is as forceful a rule as a saving throw or “to hit” roll. Groups that ignore this rule find themselves fighting everything, groups that ignore the morale rules find everything fights to the death. Just implementing both of these rules will reduce the amount of killing in the game significantly, and I think it’s telling that many groups simply ignore them. 

But there is more!

There are ample sources of charm, paralysis and sleep magic in the game, spells and items. I see a lot of people on social media grousing about paralysis and sleep magic as it “takes players out of the game and that’s not fair”, and decrying enchantment magic as it takes away agency and is akin to “mind-rape”, but these kinds of magic can also be used to AVOID slaying your opponents. It is interesting that people vocally object to magic that would allow non-lethal combat options. 

Clerics can turn undead rather than slaying them, they could also heal their foes before they die if they did not want to slay them outright. Druids can entangle foes in the wilderness rather than fight them and easily flee before they could break free, and do so without being tracked. Illusionists can deceive opponents to help the party evade combat, as well as enchanting them to keep from being attacked without slaying them. They can also scare off opponents without violence by deceiving them into thinking that they face a more formidable foe. 

None of these are “corner cases” or “exceptions”, they are RAW options available within the game that allow non-violent solutions to conflict when it arises. But for some reason people focus on fireballs and gutting opponents with swords.


If you are still skeptical, then I would recommend trying to run a game of AD&D BTB RAW. If you do so, and I would speculate that many, if not most people haven’t done this, then you will very quickly discover that resorting to violence by default is disastrous. “Murder-hobos” are entirely the progeny of this approach to the game. DM fudging and house rules remove the consequences of violence, and mute the role of alignment and “inherent evil”, so groups end up with campaigns that are filled with unjustified, bloody conflict. 

I have run hours of D&D without these muting effects, using encumbrance and material component rules, “to know” odds, non-curated spell distribution, rolled HP and stats, BTB level progression, no fudging, etc, etc. and the result is transformative. The game, if played this way, makes violence a last resort of the desperate, not the first choice of the bored. I suspect this is also one of the reasons why many DMs don’t like open rolling, because it reveals the extent of their fudging to keep PCs alive. 

Hot Take 3: Most tables don’t run games RAW, so most tables are playing D&D with a distorted idea of the centrality of violence and death to the game. D&D becomes a “game about violence” when you house rule it and manipulate the results to make it that way, once you stop doing that, players are forced to find other solutions, alliances, stealth, bargaining, etc. in order to survive and thrive. This was one of the first things I noticed when I started 

This is NOT, and I want to stress this, a “you are playing it wrong” thread, if you prefer any of these play style choices you are welcome to them, play the game as you like. If you like a violent, bloody fantasy game D&D can be that game without question. And that can certainly be fun. I have played many hours of this sort of D&D, and it has a definite appeal.

But if you are going to show up and suggest that the game is “about meaningless violence and death” when you are changing the rules and adopting a play-style that blunts the impacts of violence by the PCs, and ignoring the non-lethal play options in the game, then you are confusing play style choices with game design options. D&D is not a “game of violence”, it is a game of exploration and discovery, a game of resource management and a game of the fantastic, and if you read the literature that it emulates this would be obvious. 

Read stories from Appendix N and see how much of those stories are “about” combat and violence, you will find that the actual ink devoted to slaying things is much smaller than the ink devoted to exploration of a fantastic world. Even seminal authors like Howard, Burroughs, Vance, Moorcock and Leiber did not write page after page of death and violence. They created fantastic worlds filled with remarkable things, and the protagonists spent time exploring those worlds and interacting with their inhabitants. Violence came in sporadic bursts, in many cases they were overmatched and fled, or even questioned if the adventure was worth the risk. 

In short, they lived in a fictional world where death was omnipresent, so violence was not the first or best option, and expiration of the fantastic was as central to the story as the clashing of swords or the casting of spells. AD&D in particular emulates those worlds, but only if you play it very close to RAW, if you choose to change the rules to keep that from happening, then you will make it a “game about violence”


1 comment:

  1. I have been playing 1e AD&D since '80. I play as close to RAW as I think is possible (I don't think there is a way to play 1e AD&D RAW, but that is for a different discussion). The players in my campaign know that violence is the last resort--that's not to say there isn't violent conflict in the game, because there is, but it is not predominant. My estimation is that about one-half of the game (in real time) is involved in exploration/discovery, about one-third is role-playing, and the remainder is combat/conflict.


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